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Andrew Hodges

Covid Confusion - Finding A Way Through? ANDREW HODGES

It's like trying to complete a jigsaw without a picture on the box.

We're all trying to find a way through to the other side of this pandemic. The virus, we are being told "may not go away".  We may just have to "deal with it". So how do you answer the question: "When can I restart my workshops or my holiday groups or my classes?" We are weighing up the risks. We are looking for answers. 

At some point it may come down to "How safe do you feel?". Governments across the world are starting to ease restrictions. Some countries seem to be better at this than others.  Most are doing their best but making understandable mistakes. Others are less competent and sadly seem to be putting their economies ahead of saving lives by easing their lockdowns too quickly and without the necessary support that key workers need. It is even more concerning that a few world leaders seem only to be interested in their self-image and don't seem interested in the needs of others. Quite a mixture.

One of the principle features of the transformational properties of Sound is creating & building community. Sound practitioners of all kinds on Sound Forum, sound healers & therapists, community musicians and free improvising groups have the same problem: How and when can we restart our workshops, training courses and performances?  What do the circumstances need to be? What do we need to know before we can get everyone back together in person?

In our Sound & Musical World we, along with many others. are wondering when we can ease restrictions. Rod Paton & I would love to restart our Lifemusic workshops. I would like to start teaching my students face-to-face, not over Zoom. I lead two string quartets, one of which has players in their seventies, and the other, The Cloud Ensemble, has a nurse violinist who works on the front-line. Our decision to restart music groups of any kind is a very complicated one. Unfortunately I see little in the way of advice coming out our way as to how we are to restart safely.  The obvious answer is "when it's safe to do so". However that seems some time away. Next year? I hope not.

Behind all of this is our knowledge (or the lack of it) of the Coronavirus and its effects on the human body.  Scientists will admit that whilst their knowledge is growing they still have many questions to which they are desparately seeking answers. It is a sad fact that politicians have in the past for their own political reasons chosen to ignore the advice of experts or even to dismiss them altogether. Ironically political leaders are now in some difficulty over their previous attitudes towards experts.  We, at a personal level, know that such expert knowledge is what we all require for us to make sensible choices as to how we each respond to the possibility of this severe, potentially life-threatening illness.

The key seems to be knowing the data. Do you trust it? Do you trust the source? Who is saying it? What are their motives for saying it? Is it partial data; are they measuring everything or just what suits them?

In some ways the problem has similar characteristics to the restarting of schools. Across the world teachers are looking for ways to bring back children & teachers into the same space. Logically though, the physical distancing rules have to be applied. This seems in some cases to be facilitated by taping the classroom in 2 metre squares so that children can see where they need to be. In other cases, in the playground, children are seen standing some distance apart from each other. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this can actually work one has to consider that if it did work how odd this looks and how strange an experience it would be for children to have to interact in such an unnatural manner. Much of education is about 'play learning'. indeed across the world many countries know the importance of play to a child's development.  The classroom will have to be reset back to something like the 1950s when many of us were in neat rows and expected stay at our desks for most of the day. The idea that we might have to return to that arrangement is quite horrifying when you consider how important play and social interaction is to a growing mind. One of the UK's politicians seems to relish the prospect of a return to 'the old ways'. I am sure many if not all of us here on Sound Forum would disagree.  The decision to get schools restarted is a political one and an economic one.  Many workers can't go back to work if schools don't reopen. Risks are being taken. At governmental level the risk assessment is largely based on a statistical picture. To some extent it will include a calculation of the additional lives lost by restarting the economy as quickly as some countries are.

If this is how a school room might have to work under these restrictions it is fairly obvious that our sound groups coming together have a similar problem. It is also obvious that much of what we sound practitioners do is 'play-based' too.  Is it possible to redesign our interactions in some manner or other that won't inhibit our participants too much?  In an enclosed space we are all breathing the same air.  We often sing or chant. This increases the likliehood of passing on the virus to each other. The main difference between a government's decision and our decision is that theirs is a statistical one, ours is personal, very personal.  At this personal level, we each know we have this one chance at living life. Working it out based purely on probabilities on an individual basis isn't very informative.  If you Google "When will I die?" the answer isn't very helpful. The chances are statistically derived and can't be specific to you. But you could tomorrow trip over and fall downstairs. Statistics cannot tell you the day that will happen only the probability. Each of us has only one life story.  There isn't a manual for your life. It's all or nothing. 

A long time from now the virus may be treatable, we may have a vaccine or it may just have mutated to a less infectious variety. There are promising signs but as yet there is much research needed.  As and when we get to that point is impossible to predict, but when we do, we may be able to restart with a reasonable degree of certainty. If the signs become positive, planning especially for the larger courses and holidays can at least begin.

Moving to the other end of the timeline (now), according to the advice as things stand in many countries we can't yet meet indoors with non-family members.  Despite the schools returning we would be taking a significant risk if we followed suit.  There is an economic imperative to get the schools back. Making teachers restart, making children return is something governments can do. Even if an individual course facilitator felt safe, participants will all have their own different view. Apart from a strong desire to get together, there is no imperative to do so until most people regard it as safe.

So is there a time between now and 'a long time from now'?  Perhaps when we are advised that family groups from different households can meet inside is clearly a good indicator. To give such advice doesn't seem to be driven by any kind of economic or political position. It would be a question purely based on safety.

Allowing different households to meet up inside however might still be quite a way down track.  We seem to be in a period of relaxation of the restrictions somewhat. After a short period of time people may take more risks.  This could mean that the R number is likely to go above 1 (the rate at which the pandemic restarts).  If it does then expect a clampdown. However if it stays persistently below 1 the signs look good. However to ensure that we are looking at the complete picture it has been suggested that we wait at least 3 weeks.  At the moment announcements about the R number are based on data that is roughly 3 weeks old. The R number will probably bounce around for a while but if the general direction of travel appears to stay below 1 and be gradually reducing then I think it may be possible for course and workshop facilitators to start serious planning. However do make sure you have a clear understanding of your venue's cancellation clauses. Above all, stay in regular communication with your clients. Show them how your thinking about their safety is working. Some of our clients for courses and events won't simply return because politicians say that it safe to do so. They will have much more confidence if you've kept in regular touch and feel reassured by you. What I am noticing is that when I speak to my clients and students they are very willing to explore ways that we might get back together safely. They want desparately to get back to 'normality' too.  

We in the Sound Community are less likely than other industries to receive the kind of information and support we need to get things going again.

Ultimately it may come down to a balance between our feelings of safety and the level of trust we have in each other.  That trust is easily lost if we disregard the advice and the rules too early.

We at Sound Travels Sound Forum will try to stay on top of this situation as much as we are able to help you stay informed.

We are here for you.

Andrew Hodges (May 2020)

This article was followed up with by an article by Joshua Leeds

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